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Monday, April 27, 2009

'Continuous partial attention...'

...leads to "continuous partial empathy"? "Continuous partial attention" is the way some researchers are describing what's happening when people communicate or socialize with social-media tools like Twitter, instant messaging, chat, texting, etc. Fast Company looks at a new report from the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, which argues that the brain is quick to recognize and empathize when people see physical pain or fear in others but "much slower to recognize and empathize with emotional pain.... What this means is that, in a media environment where our social encounters happen very quickly, we may not be giving our brains a chance to generate appropriate compassion or admiration." I wonder if writer Jamais Cascio (or the researchers, if this is their concern) is factoring in the fact that social-media users usually bring existing "real world" relationships to their social-networking, IM, and Twitter accounts, relationships in which empathy is often already established - that tweets and profile comments are not the all of their relating and socializing. SN comments are more effect than cause of relationships.

But what this does suggest to me is that empathy, citizenship, and anti-bullying training in schools needs to be sure to fold the "continuous partial attention" element of online social networking into instruction. And what we might teach students is consideration - giving consideration as much as being considerate. Referring to what business consultants have been calling the new "attention economy," another Fast Company writer, Richard Kadrey, cautions - wisely, I think - that "what's limited isn't attention, but consideration [emphasis his]. Not just hearing, but listening. Not just seeing a message, but understanding its meaning." I think that goes for the social-media-enabled participatory culture in which our kids are so active. Think about this comment of Kadrey's in the context of teaching new media literacy: "It may be worth considering how we'd structure our digital world if the point wasn't just to 'pay attention' but to 'give consideration'" - perhaps another way to look at both critical thinking and empathy.

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